If you blinked, you might have missed some significant news in the middle of Rudy Giuliani’s demand for Robert Mueller to end his special-counsel probe of Donald Trump. “We’ve got Kim Jong-un impressed enough to be releasing three prisoners today,” Giuliani told Fox & Friends this morning, “and I’ve got to go there, and Jay Sekulow, and the [unintelligible], we’ve got to go there and prepare him for this silly deposition?” It appears that Giuliani confirmed in a tangent to his argument that North Korea will hand over three American hostages, after rumors of a release floated out yesterday:
In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Giuliani seems to confirm that the U.S. captives will be released from North Korea Thursday pic.twitter.com/96eoEKfUre
— Kate Riga (@Kate_Riga24) May 3, 2018
Was this another case of Giuliani being indiscreet, or a planned strategy? Donald Trump all but said the same thing on Twitter last night:
Trump’s trolling a bit here, but it would be a major diplomatic coup to get the three men released in return for nothing, at least publicly. Only one of them had been seized prior to Trump’s election, but the North Korean regime’s practice of hostaging has long been a major issue. (Ask the Malaysians, for instance.)
CNN picked up on Rudy’s aside, providing more background on the three hostages:
As of late Wednesday night, US officials did not have confirmation that the men had been released from North Korean detention camps. An official with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations told CNN on Wednesday that their release was “imminent.”
The three Americans, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, have been detained in North Korea for months. Kim Dong Chul has been in North Korean custody since before Trump was elected, and the other two detainees were arrested last spring, after Trump’s inauguration and as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were beginning to ramp up.
Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, who were arrested in April and May of 2017 respectively, were both accused of carrying out “hostile acts” against the Kim regime. Both worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) which bills itself as the only privately run university in the North Korean capital. Kim Dong Chul was arrested in 2015 for spying on behalf of South Korea, he told CNN in January 2016. The interview was conducted in the presence of North Korean officials, so CNN could not determine whether Kim’s comments were made under duress.
Rumors swirled yesterday that the three men had been taken to a hotel outside of Pyongyang and provided medical attention. The last thing Kim needs at this moment is another all-but-dead American to come back to the US, as happened with Otto Warmbier, who was likely tortured into a coma after taking a tour of North Korea. The exchange will likely only take place after Kim’s doctors certify that their condition won’t embarrass the regime, although in this case the same incentives apply on the US side until at least after Trump’s meeting with Kim.
Speaking of incentives, what’s driving all these concessions from Kim? Perhaps a hint might be seen in another development from a meeting that Kim had with China’s foreign minister on a visit to Pyongyang. Kim reportedly told Wang Yi that he was committed to denuclearization because carpe diem, or something:
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told a visiting Chinese diplomat on Thursday that he is committed to denuclearization, China’s foreign ministry said, as diplomatic efforts to bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula gather pace. …
Meeting in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, Kim told Wang that recent positive changes on the peninsula were beneficial to a peaceful resolution, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Kim Jong Un said achieving the denuclearization of the peninsula is the firm position of the North Korean side,” the ministry said.
Wang told Kim that North Korea had seized the day and made a decisive decision, bringing positive changes.
Last week’s summit talks between the leaders of the two Koreans had brought about an opportunity for a political resolution, Wang added.
Wang’s visit was a reminder to Kim that his bread is still mainly buttered in Beijing. China’s role in this peaceful transition is still hard to read, but it’s likely that they lost patience with Kim after his hydrogen-bomb test turned Punggye-ri into a nuclear fallout chimney near their border. It’s all fun and games to have a proxy regime tweak the US and Japan and run up their defense budgets, but once its starts leaking radiation all over you, it’s time to put an end to the nonsense. Just the same, Beijing wants to make clear that the road to peace has to go through them as well as through Seoul, Tokyo, and especially Washington.
The release of hostages is yet another leverage point that Kim is unilaterally surrendering, but it might be a sort of earnest showing for the upcoming talks. The US had made it clear earlier on that they wouldn’t trade for the hostages, and that any talks on loosening sanctions would only come after their release. Kim apparently got the message. That, however, doesn’t yet mean that Kim’s earnest in all other aspects, and he’s still the leader of the world’s worst prison state — as these three hostages will remind us when they return home, hopefully as soon as today.